Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Enchanted Valley

This is the third post describing my hiking adventure with my brother, Ryan, in the Olympic National Park last summer (June 2015).  The first post described my first day in Seattle, and the second post described my first day of hiking toward the Enchanted Valley.  The current post describes my second day in the backcountry, when we made it to the Enchanted Valley.  

After a deep, unbroken sleep in the backcountry, we awoke a little after 7 am to the sun beginning to warm our tent.  We each crawled out of Big Agnes from our own personal door, our feet sinking in to the cool gray sand.  It didn't take us long to get busy doing some camp chores.

Ryan used the single camp stove to brew us some coffee. He has an adorable little percolator coffee contraption that is made out of some sort of metal that is entirely too heavy, but my brother isn't bothered by the extra weight in his pack.  After the coffee was brewed, he put on a pot of steel-cut oatmeal, loaded up with plump organic raisins and a scoop of brown sugar.  
This is our little cooking area in the morning light.  You can see the two-piece coffee pot with a black handle, sitting on the rock, to the left of the red fuel canister.

Our boots, warming and drying in the sunshine.  In the background you can see me down in the creek.
While he tended to breakfast, I sat on a stone in the creek and pumped water through the filter.  The sun warmed my back while the water rushed by my feet.  As Ryan had shown me, I faced downstream so that I could pump the water from a small clear pool rather than the stirred-up rapids.  We had vessels for carrying almost 10 liters of water, and we decided to fill them all up for our big day of exploring so that we wouldn't have to pump water again for awhile.  It takes awhile to pump 10 liters of water.  I still wasn't done when Ryan brought my coffee and oatmeal to the creek, so I asked him to take some photos of me pumping water, so that I could show my kids how it was done.

Here I am in Pyrites Creek, pumping creek water through a filter to make it potable.

This is the end of the tube, resting in a clear pool of water with very few visible particulates.

The thing with the red top is the pump + filter.  You work the handle up and down, sucking water out of the creek through the tube and into a water storage vessel (shown here in green + duct tape).
And that concludes the water filtering lesson because that is when Ryan fell into Pyrites Creek and broke my camera.  Since I did not bring my cell phone into the backcountry, I did not have further means for taking photographs.  Ryan had his phone, but it was less than 20% charged so we had to use it sparingly.  Thus, I have no further photos of this day (unless my brother supplies them to me...).  

We left our tent and the majority of our supplies at Pyrites Creek, just carrying water and snacks for a day hike into the Enchanted Valley.  It was about 3 miles from camp to the valley, and the forest looked much like it had yesterday but with more meadows.  The meadows were remarkably dry and a bit brown from what had been one of the hottest and driest Junes on record.  The trees, however, did not disappoint:  tall, wide, old, and fragrant.

After a quick little hike we came upon the entrance to the Valley.  It was marked by a tall wooden gate across the trail, unconnected to a fence or any further barrier.  We opened the gate to pass, and dutifully closed it behind ourselves despite its unclear purpose.  We crossed the creek on a huge log that had been carved into a bridge, with a handrail on only the left side.  The other side of the log was completely open to the water tumbling over rocks at least a story below us.  This was the most exciting creek crossing and my favorite one of the trip.  The day was warming up considerably, and I was a bit hot from the hike, so it felt good to cool off in the moist air above the creek.

Around another bend or three we had views of the chalet in the valley that is on all of the photos and postcards.
Image result for enchanted valley chalet
From google images of the Enchanted Valley
Unfortunately, the Valley looked nothing like this on my Valley day.  It was hotter than a dickens and dry as a bone.  Most of the greens were browns, and all of the breathtaking waterfalls were dried up save for a tiny trickle of white over there, maybe, or it could have been a long white rock.  The good news is that the hot and dry version of the Enchanted Valley was still beautiful in its own special way, with its majestic trees and broad meadows.  We hiked maybe a half-mile past the chalet, and considered hiking up to the pass, but I was threatening to get overheated.  After exploring the valley for a little while and munching on some lunch, we decided to head back to camp.

We made it to camp by 2pm, and I was HOT.  I was trembling as I raced to remove my boots, put on shorts and a t-shirt, and throw myself into Pyrites Creek to cool off.  The water took my breath away and quickly brought down my core temperature.  The water was too cold to stay submerged for long, so we alternated swimming and sunning for about an hour.

Now it was only 3pm, and this presented a problem.  It was far too early to start the evening and dinner routines, but we had already achieved our Enchanted Valley goals.  What should we do with our afternoon?  After weighing our options, we decided to break camp and hike out to O'Neil's camp.  O'Neil's was three miles from our current location, and 1/3 of the way back to the car.  This was therefore a reasonable plan to give us an activity for the rest of our day, and also to put us closer to the car for our hike out of the woods on the next day.  It didn't take us long to pack up and hit the trail.

We were less than a mile from O'Neil's camp when it happened.  We saw a bear!  We may have even seen two bears. The bear was working on a project in the middle of the trail about 30 yards in front of us.  It was perched on a little dirt mound alongside the trail, tearing strips of wood from a stump.  Our view was poor due to trees blocking our view, and the bear kept re-positioning, so it was unclear if the bear was working alone or if it had a cub working with it, too.  We backed up, way up, so that we could still hear and see the bear but felt more comfortable with the distance.  We kept talking to each other so that the bear knew where we were.  We considered returning to Pyrites Creek, but I was tired.  I had walked 6 miles to and from the Enchanted Valley, plus another 3 miles to this here bear.  I was not in the mood to add mileage to both today and tomorrow's hikes out of fear of a bear.  We alternated moments of waiting and retreating, waiting and retreating, until we unanimously decided to walk around the bear.

The trail containing the bear happened to be at a location favorable for circumnavigation.  The mountain gently sloped on either side of the trail, and we knew that the trail was heading down and to the left.  So, we went off-trail and cut across the mountain down and to the left, with Ryan leading the way.  The ground was so littered with evergreen needles, sticks, and logs in various stages of decay that it didn't even seem like I was walking on earth anymore.  Instead I was sprint-hiking across the springy ground, trying to keep up with Ryan as he navigated us to the trail as far away from the bear as reasonable.   All the while we tried to talk to each other so that the bear knew where we were, but in a situation like that it's hard to think of things to say.  I ended up singing Dory's song from Finding Nemo, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming."

Eventually we reunited with the trail.  I wanted to run down the trail, to improve the distance between me and the bear or bears, but I had to settle for speed-hiking due to my pack and the fatigue.  As I settled down from the bear scare I realized that walking around the bear was a metaphor for a lot of challenges that I've had in this life.  I couldn't move the bear, and retreating wasn't a good option, so I had to find a way to proceed with the bear.  I kept walking, and I walked around the bear.  I didn't let the bear interfere with my plans.  Luckily my brother was a good partner for this decision, as he has been for so many of my difficult decisions.

Shortly after the bear we arrived at O’Neil’s and set up camp.  This campsite was nestled in the woods a bit more, but nonetheless had excellent creek access.  We placed Big Agnes under a tree and next to a fallen log, then began our evening routines of cooking and water-pumping.  This night's feast was bowtie pesto pasta with goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.  I'm telling you, you've never tasted food so good as that prepared by my brother in the backcountry.

Unlike Pyrites Creek, this campsite had an established privy.  I felt obligated to use the privy despite my proficiency at peeing in the woods, in part because there was another tenter nearby.  Unfortunately, the privy was super creepy to get to.  It was easily 200 steps from camp (judging by the step data below) at the end of a narrow trail through thick green underbrush that was as tall as I am.  Thus, going to the bathroom was an exercise in bravery, particularly after seeing a bear so near to the camp.  I ended up singing loudly to myself for each step of the harrowing journey to the privy, until I could lock myself inside.  I'd start singing again right before I unlocked the door.  This time my song of choice was the Beatles', "Hey Jude", but I always replace "Jude" with "June" because that is my niece's name.  If my rendition of "Hey June" didn't scare the bears away, nothing would--Nah, nah nah, nah-nah nah nah.

After dinner and chores we headed down to the creek to relax.  I thought it'd be nice to stay up a little later than the night before to see some stars.  We found some ideally shaped stones and fashioned them into recliners in the creek.  We kept our bodies dry on the stones while the water trekked downstream.  We had great conversations, my brother and I.  We discovered that we live by some of the same rules.  My number one rule is: optimize.  Ryan’s rule #1 of the backcountry is:  don’t make a decision until you have to.  Rule #2, for both of us:  feels better when you earn it.

Sometime after 10pm it still wasn't very dark and we could only see four stars.  We realized that it was high summer in the Pacific Northwest, so it wouldn't get truly dark until much later.  We said goodnight to the creek, goodnight to our recliners, and turned in to Big Agnes.

Day 2. 28,802 steps. I think the bear scare is represented by the shortest orange bar between 4 and 6 pm.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's all there

Two hours.  Yesterday I found myself with two unscheduled hours, just for me.  I was unexpectedly released from work two hours early, the kids were still in school, and my husband was working.  I cradled these two golden hours in the palm of my hand, not wanting to let them slip through my fingers.  I thought of many things I could do with these two hours that would serve the progress of something--dinner, or shopping, or cleaning, or planning.  I thought about calling a friend for some spontaneous and always needed friend time.  Instead, I decided to walk.  Yet another gorgeous day in what has been an autumn full of gorgeous days beckoned to me.  I stopped by the house long enough to put on my walking shoes, then I drove to my favorite park.

Walking might not seem like much exercise, but it's my favorite thing to do.  The other day I was playing bat-and-ball with my daughters, and Azalea was getting frustrated with me for one too many poor pitches.  I laughed and told her that instead she should be delighted with the surprising quantity of good pitches that I hurled her way.  I explained that her mom is not what you'd call an "athlete".  Perhaps this lack of innate athleticism is what draws me to walking.  Perhaps it's being outside.  For whatever reason, I love it.

The park I walked at yesterday has a 3-mile paved trail around a lake, which is enjoyed by walkers, joggers, and cyclists.  After walking this trail for about a quarter-mile, there is an option to split off onto a gravel trail that winds up a hill, around a marsh, and through a prairie.  Far fewer people take this trail.  It is my favorite trail.  Without hesitation, I struck out from the car toward the unpaved trail.

The clouds formed a high and discontinuous ceiling over the prairie, blocking most of the sunlight while allowing glimpses of blue sky.  I had to force myself to take my eyes off the big sky to keep from tripping.  I had the trail all to myself, and I must have been the only passerby for some time because I startled several wild things.  Occasionally a creature wiggled the grass, or splashed the water, or rustled the leaves as it scrambled to get away from me.  I even saw a waterborne mammal, probably a muskrat.  A rare sighting to be sure.

At the top of a hill is a remarkable overlook where the prairie spills over the hillside without the obstruction of trees or structures.  I gazed over the prairie as I walked, marveling at the vastness of plant life that has all gone dormant but will grow anew in a few months.  Suddenly my eyes caught sight of a solitary leaf, twisting as it fell from nowhere in particular.  I was at the top of a treeless hill, looking down on grasses, with nothing but clouds above, so where did this leaf come from?  I distracted myself from these musings by switching my focus to catching the leaf.  It became tangled in a gust of wind and sped toward me, and my athleticism meter inched up a notch as I caught the leaf with one hand.  I examined the leaf, feeling certain that it would be remarkable in someway.  But it wasn't.  It was a dry, brown, crumbly leaf, even a bit on the smallish side, with a few holes in it.  I smiled at its ordinary appearance despite its magical entrance.  I made a wish, because that seemed like the appropriate thing to do with a maybe-magical leaf, and released it back onto the wind.  It lifted out of my hands for a moment before nose-diving into the grass across the trail.

I breathed deeply and allowed myself to be filled with gratitude for this day, for my life, for these two hours, for a maybe-magical leaf.  It's all there for me, to support me.  It's all there for me no matter what.  It's all there for you, too.  And it doesn't even require two hours.